By Than N. Oo
Dr. Soe Min stared at the monsoon downpour that varied between drizzling and torrential rain from inside his makeshift field hospital—a squat building with open sides, a corrugated roof, and wooden floor. The dirt road leading to the hospital had become a mud field. He has just operated on a villager who stepped on a landmine. His next case was a routine one, an appendectomy. Not far from the hospital, at the village of Sezin, a fierce fight had recently taken place between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) joined by the newly minted Peoples Defense Forces (PDF). They were squaring off against Burma’s military known at the Tatmadaw who were reinforced by the local Shanni Nationalities Army (SNA). The fighting had produced a flood of refugees, many badly wounded. There is a risk the hospital may need to be closed or relocated should the fighting spread. Dr. Min has made contingency plans for such a scenario – he has to; after being in this war zone for the past 12 months, he must prepare for everything.
What a difference the past eighteen months have made not just for Dr. Soe Min, but also for the country of Myanmar as a whole. In his early 50s, he was a fully trained general surgeon practicing at a premier teaching hospital in Yangon, the biggest city in the country. In addition, he was also a well-known blogger sharing his medical knowledge as well as social activism on Myanmar’s most widely used media platform, Facebook. Then came the Myanmar military coup of 1st February 2021, and his life, as well as the country’s, has changed forever.
The military coup sparked a civic uprising as millions demonstrated against the coup. At the tip of the protest movement, known as the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), were health care workers and the medical community in particular, joined by students, educators, civil servants—this was an uprising of Myanmar’s entire civil society. The military’s response was brutal. Demonstrators were gunned down on the streets. The Hlaing Thar Yar massacre of March 2021 was just one example. Hundreds of protesters in this poor Yangon suburb were gunned down by the military. Dr. Min rushed to Hlaing Thar Yar hospital hoping to help treat the wounded. The soldiers blocked him and others from treating the wounded. In his estimate close to a hundred people were killed. And it was just one of the many crackdowns taking place in the country. Many youths lost hope in the non-violent opposition and fled to ethnic areas for military training and undertake armed struggle. They formed local People Defense Forces (PDF) and fought back using captured guns, hand-made firearms–anything. The military continued its assault on the Myanmar people using arrests, torture, murder and terror tactics to try and subdue the uprising. Then came the COVID epidemic. A perfect biological weapon for the military.
The junta distributed scarce vaccine to the military and its supporters. Those opposing the regime were denied treatment. Dr. Min was an in charge of a large COVID care center in Yangon named Irrawaddy. The junta ordered that center shut down and persecuted doctors who treated COVID patients at private hospitals and clinics. One of Dr. Min’s colleagues and the doctor in charge of the national COVID vaccination program, Dr. Htar Htar Lin, was arrested for running the program and exposing fraud and abuse. When Dr. Min blogged about these experiences, (lack of care for COVID patients that he had tried to tend to and the Hlaing Thar Yar casualties) the junta came looking for him. He decided that instead of sitting idle in a jail cell, he’d continue serving Myanmar and the democracy movement through medicine. In June 2021, disguised, he escaped to northern Myanmar finally settling in the village of Sezin, a remote area in the jungle controlled by the Kachin Independence Army but contested by the Tatmadaw. A small village of 2,000, it had no healthcare and no doctor. He established a small, free clinic treating anyone who walked in. Many had never met a doctor, let alone a medical specialist, before.
Over the next few months, Dr. Min started expanding his clinic into a small field hospital capable of performing some surgeries. It was out of necessity. The nearest hospital with an operating room was a day’s travel away over a mud road; too far for most people. Moreover, it had a doctor but no surgeon. As word spread of “Dr. Min” he was joined by a few nurses that also had to flee to safety. He began a program where they trained local people in becoming medical assistants. Some of them eventually became corpsmen for the PDF. Slowly but surely, a healthcare system, fragile and minimal as it was, began to come together. As military activity in the region grew closer, he decided to relocate the field hospital a few miles further away from Sezin to a more remote location. Conditions were primitive. Electricity is only through diesel generators and there is no running water. In the meantime, he continued to blog sharing his experience in the jungle while providing insights, critiques and comments on the Spring Revolution taking place in the country. He named his blog “Diaries from Camp Jang Geum”; Jang Geum being the name of a character from the popular Korean soap opera series watched by many in Myanmar.
Dr. Min quickly built-up many followers. He is now considered the most trusted influencer in Myanmar. There are a few other motivational or celebrity influencers such as Pencilo or Myo Yan Naung Thein etc. waging a similar online propaganda war against the military junta. However, most of them have taken up political asylum in the west. Dr. Min decided to remain in Myanmar and help people no matter the difficulties. Working independently, he built his credibility and reinforced the notion that his work was solely for the people of Myanmar. His opinions, comments and writings are highly regarded by Myanmar’s netizens. His experience of hardships in the jungle and revolutionary aspirations are followed by millions and are shared by thousands in Myanmar.
Little-by-little Dr. Min expanded the services his hospital could provide. He was joined by another young CDM doctor whom he trained to become a field surgeon. He was later able to convince an OBGYN to join him. Donations, especially of medical equipment, came through his former network of healthcare providers. Remoteness is both a blessing and a curse. It protects the hospital from incursions from the military, but supply chains became hard to sustain. The situation is somewhat akin to the early days of the Mae Tao charity clinic which served refugees fleeing the war-torn villages in Karen state. 30 years later Mae Tao clinic has become a large and comprehensive community health center with many western donors and the founder, Dr. Cynthia Maung, has numerous awards and widely recognition for her selfless volunteerism. However, her clinic is located safely inside Thailand.
In the twelve months since he has been in the area, fighting has escalated all over Myanmar, but the fiercest battles are taking place in the states of Kayah (Karenni), Karen, Chin, Kachin, Sagaing and northern Magway. Dr. Min’s hospital is right inside Kachin state nor far from the Sagaing border. PDF forces generally rely on ambushes and landmines while the military relies on brute force—airstrikes, artillery, heavy weapons, and terror as they burn villages, commit summary executions, and also use rape as a weapon. Tens of thousands of civilians have become internally displaced people (IDP). Those that need medical care come to Dr. Min’s clinic for help. Following the recent fight at the village of Sezin, where KIA and PDF forces had to retreat, he has heard firsthand horror stories through badly wounded villagers who make it to his hospital. Myanmar soldiers looted all the valuables and burnt down the whole village. A few elderly and infirmed who couldn’t run from the army were simply shot on the spot. Such horror stories were shared to Dr. Min from his patients who are now IDPs. Dr. Min felt compelled, despite security concerns, to bring the story of Sezin to the world. He turned to his blog and wrote about the death and destruction wrought by the Tatmadaw on innocent civilians.
Sometimes, Dr. Min dreams about eventually building up his hospital into another famous jungle hospital in Myanmar, the one built by Dr. Gordon Seagrave (the author of “The Burma Surgeon”) in Namhkan, a small and remote town in the Shan state of Burma in the 1950s. Dr Seagrave’s missionary legacy is his awareness of the importance and subsequent emphasis on good training of ancillary medical staff such as nurses, midwives and health assistants. That’s what is truly needed in rural Myanmar. In order to do so it means he will have to settle in this area for decades as a trainer, just like Dr Seagrave. His original sacrifice in giving up a comfortable home and job was to be of assistance during the uprising. Once the junta is toppled, he needs not be worried about being arrested and should be able to return home. Such a dilemma of possibilities! But for now, the revolution must come first.
Dr. Min takes a deep breath as he prepares for the next patients to arrive. Yet again it will be another long day. But he is ready to fight on—by healing those in need and through power of the pen though his blog.
(Dr Soe Min granted access to author Than N. Oo who is one of the founders of the advocacy group, Free Myanmar.)